When Ronald Reagan first ran for governor of California, setting the fuse for the revolution that reinvented the Republican Party, he had an irresistible target to knock the length of the state: “the mess at Berkeley.” Reagan pledged to crack down on student demonstrators, and after his election, took the same bludgeon to the University of California budget.
Half a century later, surveying the national funding scene, the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoaned “the list of budgetary showdowns playing out between Republican governors and higher education.”
Who says there are no more college traditions?
Over the past decades, higher education’s state funding problems have been bipartisan, with support dropping in states with both red and blue college colors. But resentment of professors and students, and budget targeting of their institutions, runs higher in states with GOP leadership, especially in marquee Republican states like Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana, Sam Brownback’s Kansas and Pat McCrory’s North Carolina.
Writing on Salon.com, Sean McElwee and Robbie Hiltonsmith analyzed a Grapevine study from Illinois State University and found “when Republicans take over governor’s mansions they reduce spending on higher education by $0.23 per $1,000 in personal income (a measure of the state’s total tax base). Each 1 percent increase in the number of Republicans in the legislature leads to a $0.05 decrease.”
Politicians tend to reward their base, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia told U.S. News; “Most GOP elected officials believe that universities are hotbeds of Democratic support – and the voting patterns in most college precincts support this.”
During the Great Recession, virtually all states cut their higher education funding. But since the low point in 2009-10, states have raised their higher ed funding by an average of 10 percent. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has cut its spending by 4 percent.
The day before Scott Walker announced for president, he signed a budget cut of $250 million for Wisconsin public universities. He actually wanted to cut $300 million, but the legislature wouldn’t go that far. He also wanted to drop the La Follette-era Wisconsin Idea, pledging a system emphasizing a search for truth and reaching “every family in the state,” with prioritizing “workforce needs” – although Walker later blamed that on a “drafting error.”
Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told the Wisconsin State Journal, “Wisconsin has gained a reputation as having a Legislature and a governor that are hostile to the mission and values of public colleges and universities.”
In another state with a Republican governor aiming for the White House, “The scope of Louisiana’s disinvestment is both startling and unique,” mourned the Advocate of Baton Rouge. “Louisiana … according to national surveys, has cut higher education funding more than any other state since the slowdown began. State aid to universities here has been slashed by 55 percent.” At the start of the recession, Louisiana covered 60 percent of university expenses; under Jindal, it fell to 25 percent, with tuition rising accordingly.
In his last year, running for the 2016 GOP nomination for president, Jindal wanted to cut the higher ed budget further, but the legislature resisted and took some money out of a rainy-day fund. (At the start of his presidential campaign, Jindal insisted that higher ed spending had actually risen slightly during his administration, a claim that The Washington Post’s Fact Checker awarded three Pinocchios.) The state’s budget has been suffering from the oil collapse, but also from Jindal’s enthusiasm for tax cuts and business tax breaks.
Wisconsin, Louisiana and Arizona, notes Michael Mitchell, senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, are among the states considerably more interested in tax cuts than in higher education. By the CBPP’s figures, deep-red Arizona actually cut higher ed by more than Louisiana from 2008 to 2014.
Kansas, also still absorbing a huge tax cut, is another of the few states continuing to cut higher education funding in 2015-2016. There, legislative Republicans had an inspiration: Base cuts on the universities’ overall budgets rather than their instructional budgets, meaning deeper cuts for the research institutions, the University of Kansas instead of Kansas State. State Sen. Jacob LaTurner explained that the “massive universities” could better handle the reductions – despite their being cut for the eighth consecutive year.
North Carolina was the first state to establish a state university, and UNC-Chapel Hill has been a national public university flagship. Things have been a little different since Republicans took over the state legislature in 2010, for the first time since Reconstruction. After $700 million in cuts during the recession, the system was cut another $63 million this year, despite a state budget surplus. For the John William Pope Center for Higher Education – funded by state GOP moneyman Art Pope – Jenna Ashley Robinson argued that such cuts would force universities to “eliminate wasteful and inefficient spending on campus.”
Besides, Zoe Carpenter reported in The Nation, the center’s policy director Jay Schalin has explained that the universities’ problem isn’t money. “The main problem has to do with the ideas that are being discussed and promoted,” Schalin insisted, namely “multiculturalism, collectivism, left-wing post-modernism.” The concerns are similar to model legislation from the American Legislative Executive Council calling on state legislatures to establish philosophical “diversity” standards, overseeing what public university professors teach.
Conservative hostility, and hacking, aimed at public universities has risen to the highest levels.
The 2016 Republican platform calls for “new systems of learning to compete with traditional four-year schools: Technical institutions, online universities, life-long learning, and work-based learning in the private sector.” Higher education, it threatens, “must be challenged to balance its worth against its negative economic impact on students and their families.”
Of course, relentless slashing of public funding increasing public universities dependence on tuition, multiplies that negative impact on families. When Ronald Reagan pledged to clean up the mess at Berkeley, the University of California had no tuition, and costs at other public universities were close to nominal. Now, public support has shrunk, and it’s considered normal for students to leave state universities with a debt that could exceed their postgraduate salary.
Many elements have contributed to this situation; in tough times, legislators have found it easy to tell themselves that universities, unlike prisons and kindergartens, can always raise tuition. But it also grows out of a rising attitude on the right that higher education is not so much a center of opportunity as a fat political target.
And for public universities in many states, the recession refuses to end.
NOTE: This appeared in The New Republic.com, September 2016.